In June of 2014, a story broke on most providers which could only be described as troubling. Three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. Innocents tend to fan flames quite quickly. A detachment of soldiers is shot at, with a few casualties? Not as big of a story; they are soldiers, that is the life they have been fated. But kids... They tend to pull at heartstrings and push people towards rash decisions. One of the articles I read referenced the teens as a 'Franz Ferdinand Moment'. Bring on Centropa CSA 2014.
They day before leaving for Vienna, Israel launches Operation Protective Edge. Its goal was to root out Hamas tunnels, built for use against Israel. Not exactly Austria Hungary moving against Serbia, but troubling to say the least.
This year's Summer Academy brought us to three cities - Vienna, Zagreb, and Sarajevo. The storyline for this was the beginning and end of 20th Century. According to Centropa, the 20th Century began with Franz Ferdinand's Assassination in Sarajevo, and ended with the Siege of that city in the 90's. As was said during discussions - if your family was from this region, your family had a pretty shitty 20th Century.
Bus rides are never something I look forward to. Maybe it brings back too many Private School memories, of loud classmates all yelling to be heard, maybe it is my 6'3" frame and my inability to ever achieve total control of the armrest. But this would be a bus ride I was looking forward to. Moving through the Balkan countryside, I expected to see ranging fields, rolling hills, and strong rivers. All that was there, and more.
Throughout the terrain of Bosnia and Herzegovina the signs of the Yugoslav Wars were still noticeable. Noticable might be too weak a word. Obvious. Abandoned houses, grafitti, amputees. The view from out hotel was marvelous - the surrounding mountains with homes perched on them; complete with sprayed .50cal rounds into the side of the building next door. All over the city, these markings were still evident. Apartment towers which had entire floors blasted out, repaired with red brick. Large businesses which had been shelled and left to rot. Cemetaries which had row after row marked '1992', '1993'...
The trip itself took a heavy toll on many people. Centropa brings together teachers from around Europe and the US. Many of these teachers from the Balkans had living memories of the descent of Yugoslavia into total chaos. Their experience on this trip was vastly different than mine; there is no question. As an American, I have been very fortunate. The United States is in a unique position in the world. A sustained bombing campaign, a long invasion, a devastating siege; these are not things which Americans have to worry about. Terrorism and Nuclear Warfare are much more plausible events - and even these are on very few minds in the States. But this part of Europe (and many parts of the World) dealt with these things. For almost a decade, monsters from many sides murdered innocent people in pursuit of some insane goal. This is the world that some people I hold dear grew up in. And I can try as hard as I may, but I am not sure I can ever truly understand it.
During a coffee break one afternoon in Sarajevo, while waiting in line for heart pumping Bosnian Coffee, I pulled up some quick news on my phone. Rockets were being fired into Israel at an alarming rate. Indiscriminate. I went outside and found a collegue who hailed from Israel. I talked to him, asked if he had gotten a chance to make contact with his family. He assured me he had; that they were fine. If things became bad where they were, he said, they would meet him here. By car, I later found out, they were about 2 hours outside of Jerusalem, where some of the rockets had been aimed. I drive that distance to see my mother every month or so. People say it's nice to have her so close.
While wandering through the streets of Vienna, there was a conversation between some friends and I. Not really a conversation. More of just listening. Listening to what a good friend felt about what had happened in the Former Yugoslavia in the 90's. About madness. About monsters. Victims. Death. The Horror. I listened and these stories were terrifying. Stories of houses being bombed, of friends and relatives gone; stories which no one should have of their youth. Something that I have always believed is that all wars have victims. That citizens fight wars for many reasons; and both sides create and have victims. I did quick math in my head and figured out where I was and what my concerns were when I was that young. Things which aren't fit for a teacher blog. Definitely, a major concern was not Survival. One night in Sarajevo, while many were laughing and enjoying the cool weather that seemed to follow us through the mountains, I met someone who was almost exactly my age. He apologized that his English was poor; school was cancelled for several years because of the danger posed by snipers. For once, I had no retort.
The Academy ended with thunderous applause. Just about anyone I talked to the last day was blown away with the amount of information gained. At the experience which Centropa has created - working with teachers from across the globe, being influenced, learning. On top of all that, they loved the information - the program that Centropa had created. But everyone also left with a stronger sense of History, of wounds that are still healing. One of the strongest ideas I have taken from a friend at both Academies has been that we as teachers have the power responsibility to impact the future. That we can prevent the horrors that were seen in the Balkans in the 90's. A few days after I came back home, pictures kept popping up. The first night that we were all in Sarajevo, the World Cup Final was on. Early in the afternoon, we had reserved a space for as many people as possible to watch the game together. The television was far too small for the room, with just about every participant crammed into a small alcove to watch a game that few had a true stake in. It was much more about being with friends, with laughing, with realizing the good in life. People from across oceans, borders, time zones; people who had no business meeting without Centropa. Embarces, cheers, selfies...
As I sat there and watched different friends post different pictures of the same event, news came through of rockets hitting a United Nations School in Gaza. Before the week was out, both sides would refuse to accept responsibility; each putting blame on the other. 15 dead. More victims.